Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: Adam Hochschild and the Serious Study of War

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 4, 2011 06:15 pm

Adam Hochschild, a popular historian whose King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa spelled out the full story of the Belgian debacle that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, has written a powerful new book about the loose coalition of pacifists and activists that fought bitterly against England's participation in the Boer Wars and World War One a century ago. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.

Hochschild is a rare popular historian who writes not about subjects designed to make male readers feel good about their masculinity (a visit to a bookstore's history section, after all, gives the impression that the Civil War and World War II were the only two wars ever fought) but rather about stunning or vexing episodes from our past that we know nothing about. I was not aware that there was a vigorous pacifist movement in England a hundred years ago. The invisibility of this past movement reminds me of the invisibility of the pacifist cause today, and Adam Hochschild is certainly interested in making the same connection. Here he is in the book's introductory chapter:

August Strindberg's Inferno

by Bill Ectric on Thursday, June 2, 2011 09:04 am

Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.

The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.

Philosophy Weekend: Explaining Osama Bin Laden

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 7, 2011 03:12 pm

A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:

  • He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
  • He was a nutjob.
  • He was a religious fanatic.

I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.

Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.

A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.

Barna Nemethi's Fashionable 21st Century Dada

by Claudia Moscovici on Thursday, May 5, 2011 03:04 pm

(I especially appreciate Romanian-born contributor Claudia Moscovici's articles because they fill us in on literary/art scenes we'll never otherwise hear of. Here she introduces Barna Nemethi, a current sensation in Eastern Europe. -- Levi)

Newton’s third law of physics says for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. However, things don’t work out as neatly in the world of art. There are some rules that govern the world of art, but these are constantly broken by new and innovative artists. One of the most creative and irreverent art movements was Dada, founded by a Romanian poet, Tristan Tzara. Like Surrealism, which later sprung from it, Dada was a broad cultural movement, involving the visual arts, poetry, literature, theater, graphic design and–inevitably–even politics.

Born in the wake of the devastation caused by the First World War, Dada rejected “reason” and “logic,” which many of its artists associated with capitalist ideology and the war machine. Despite becoming internationally known for so many visible artists and poets, the Dada movement could not be pinned down. Its aesthetic philosophy was anti-aesthetic; its artistic contribution was anti-art. As Hugo Ball stated, “For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”

Philosophy Weekend: Nicholson Baker's Case for Pacifism

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 1, 2011 11:16 am

I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts -- Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One -- but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper's Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country's honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.

This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I've been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled "Pacifism's Coma" and "The Trauma Theory".

But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It's a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I'm sure it's not) and that's why I'm so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.

Hervey Allen, Edgar Allan Poe and the Creepy Scribblings of Bernhart Hobbins

by Michelle Glauser on Wednesday, March 9, 2011 08:04 am

(Please welcome a debut Litkicks piece by Michelle Glauser, who runs her own blog and describes herself as "a Mormon chocolate-lover who studied English at the University of Utah and American Studies at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where I focused on women's autobiographical writing and wrote a master's thesis on mommy blogging". -- Levi)

Have you ever found something in an old book that took you by surprise? It's not unusual to find a name or maybe even a phone number. Sometimes you'll find evidence that the book once belonged to a library. But extensive notes and criticism of an author as well-known as Edgar Allan Poe and his biographer? Maybe in a textbook. I certainly wasn't expecting what I recently found.

New Books Report: Sepulveda's Shadow, Civil War Literature, A Vonnegut Conversation

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 7, 2011 07:10 pm

Here are three books I've recently enjoyed. I'll cover a couple more next week as well.

The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda

Chilean novelist and activist Luis Sepulveda lived through his nation's greatest political humiliation -- the overthrow of its democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende by rightists (backed by USA President Nixon's CIA) in September 1973 -- and now recalls that era in The Shadow of What We Were. This deceptively lighthearted comic novel presents a modern-day reunion of aging freedom-fighter heroes, fugitives, dreamers and organizers from 1973, now elderly men grown weak and bittersweet, gathering one last time to carry out a mission against the powers that still oppress them. Sepulveda skillfully balances the morose political overtones and deep sense of national loss with warm, wry dialogue and layered pop-culture references -- we catch glimpses of The Watchmen, Reservoir Dogs and The Magnificent Seven -- that point our attention to what has really conquered Chile since the days of Allende and Pinochet: western culture, and the complacent spirit of entertainment.

Philosophy Weekend: The Cage Match Between Ayn Rand and Carl Jung

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 5, 2011 08:23 pm

I began this five-part series (informally titled "Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong" -- the previous four sections are here, here, here and here) by quoting Rand's own succinct summary of her ethical philosophy, and I'll repeat it today:

Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
--Ayn Rand, 1962

I believe this is terrible advice, yet I know Ayn Rand's ideas have become increasingly popular. What you've seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong. I have a particular argument in mind, but I feel a bit flummoxed by the fact that I can't find another major thinker who has expressed the argument I wish to express, which leaves me in the ironically Randian position of having to stand here alone, supported by nobody else, screaming my argument to the skies.

Mopey Dick and the Duke: Denys Wortman's New York City Characters

by Alan Bisbort on Wednesday, February 2, 2011 03:20 pm

The name Denys Wortman (1887-1958) doesn’t roll off the tongue or out of the memory banks quite as readily as the contemporaries with whom he was most kindred: Reginald Marsh, Art Young, Alice Neel, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn and, to some extent, Ashcan School artists John Sloan and Robert Henri (under whom he studied). Nevertheless, a new collection of his work, rescued by James Sturm and Brandon Elston from an archive of 5,100 long-neglected works, should restore his place in the pantheon of Gotham’s artists.

Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 30s and 40s, edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, has the look and feel of a lost archeological treasure, a trove of images that genuinely re-create what it was like to live, work, dine, drink, love and hate in the nation’s most exciting city at a time when the national economy was, as it is today, in a prolonged slump. Using little more than a few lead pencils and some sketch paper — and the blacks, whites and myriad shades of gray he could coax from his lead and eraser — Wortman created nothing less than, as the book’s subtitle accurately touts, “a portrait of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s”. He was the city’s virtually unsung visual chronicler during these years in the way that, decades earlier, Eugene Atget had obscurely wandered the streets of Paris with his camera equipment to amass his now legendary photo archive. Or, closer to home, Wortman depicted in pencil drawings and cartoons what writers like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Max Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing captured in words, or what Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott captured in black and white photographs.

Romania's Literary Star, or Why Americans Are Obsessed With Dracula

by Claudia Moscovici on Monday, January 31, 2011 10:30 pm

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.

Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:


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